Britain built an empire on the strength of the Royal Navy. However, while winding merchant convoys and far-off naval power might be impressive, one of the most important factors lies much closer to home. The English Channel, just 20 miles across at some points, played a pivotal role throughout history. When you take a ferry over the Channel, you’re passing through one of the most historically significant waterways in the world. Next time you take a ferry to France, keep a few of these events in mind.
Defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588
As a response to English privateering in the Americas, King Philip II of Spain sent a heavily-armed invasion fleet to overthrow Elizabeth I. The English fleets under Sir Francis Drake harried and harassed the Spanish, damaging many ships and sinking several. The real damage came from an English “fire ship” attack, which sent the Spanish fleet running right into a huge storm. This wrecked dozens of Spanish ships, only half of which eventually returned to Spain. The victorious English sailors were hailed as heroes . . . but were not paid for their services.
The 1917 Battle of the Dover Strait
English naval forces were able to blockade the Channel across the Dover Strait, running a huge network of mines and anti-submarine nets to prevent German naval actions. In 1917, the Imperial German Navy launched a raid to cut through this blockade, but were met with destroyers from the Royal Navy. In fierce night-fighting, the British forces drove back the attackers, with the HMS Broke even ramming a German torpedo boat. The blockade continued to be a success, and was a major factor in forcing Germany to surrender the next year.
Operation Cycle – 1940
The evacuation of the British Army from France didn’t stop after Dunkirk. For weeks afterwards, desperate defences and heroic evacuations took place all along the French coast. Operation Cycle involved both French and British troops fighting fierce rearguard actions against the advancing 7th Panzer division. More than 11,000 Allied troops were eventually evacuated through Le Havre, Cherbourg, and several other ports.
Far more than meets the Eye
The English Channel has played a huge part in British and European history. Next time you’re crossing the channel, whether you’re taking a ferry to France, Spain or any other destination, you’ll be navigating one of the most important bodies of water in the world. That’s something to keep in mind, though if you’re feeling seasick you might not be quite so thoughtful!